Michael Phelps (USA) ticked every box in his secret book of Olympic dreams, he told two packed press conferences after lifting his eighth gold medal in eight mornings of finals at the Water Cube.
"Everything was accomplished," Phelps said. "Doing all best times, winning every race." Seven of Phelps's gold medals were accompanied by a world record, including three global standards. The one world record that stood was teammate Ian Crocker's 100m butterfly standard, of 50.40, and even then Phelps clocked an Olympic record and personal best time of 50.58, 0.01sec ahead of Milorad Cavic (SRB).
Many did not believe that Phelps could do it. Among them was Ian Thorpe, the Australian who was no sooner linked to the debate about who and what constitutes greatness in swimming and sport generally than he found he was racing in a pool with a man ready to rewrite history as the greatest Olympian of all-time. Thorpe said that he felt the feat impossible in a particular context: it was not to undermine the American but rather to provide a clue as just how difficult what Phelps has now done actually is. The message from Thorpe was intended for the ears of those who say that Phelps is not the greatest Olympian of all-time because swimming offers "too many chances". One twit wrote that medley was like asking runners to take a side step or a jump every so many paces in their race. There are levels of understanding - and then there is stupidity.
Phelps was happy to prove doubters wrong, he said. "The greatest thing is proving nothing is impossible. So many people said it couldn't be done, but all it takes is an imagination. That is something I have learned."
Along the way to surpassing Mark Spitz's 1972 record of seven gold at one Games, Phelps scaled the summit of Olympic achievement, matching and then surging past the record nine career gold medals of Games icons Spitz, Paavo Nurmi, Carl Lewis and Larysa Latynina.
Beyond eight gold medals in eight best times, Phelps had a deeper dream, he said: changing the profile of swimming in the United States, a country that has long boasted the best swim team on the planet but pays attention to the pool once every four years when the Games comes round.
"It's fun," Phelps said. "From here it is a continuation with my goal of raising the sport of swimming as high as I can in the US... 70,000 fans will be watching the relay at the (NFL) Ravens game tonight (the team based in his home town of Baltimore), and it has been shown at sports events across the country. I have heard people say it's crazy, they are out to dinner and swimming is on the television. For me, it's still work in progress."
Phelps started his campaign with a victory in the first final of the meet last Sunday, the 400m individual medley, and - via the 200m medley, 100m and 200m butterfly, 200m freestyle and both the 4x100m and 4x200m freestyle relays - concluded his campaign in time to give thanks and have Sunday lunch today.
Here's how it panned out:
Phelps dodged the bullet three times along the way: in the 4x100m freestyle relay, Phelps led off the US challenge with a personal best time of 47.51 but by the time anchor Jason Lezak dived in, French sprinter Alain Bernard was a bodylength ahead. Lezak clocked the fastest split in history - 46.06, to defeat France by 0.07sec.
"That kept it alive," said coach Bob Bowman. "After the 200 IM, I started to think we could get there, that was when I allowed myself to believe a little bit, it was pretty exciting."
Then came the 200m butterfly, in which water flooded into Phelps's goggles. A "wardrobe malfunction" is how Phelps described the moment when he didn't strap up properly. A schoolboy mistake. Phelps was grateful for the 2sec comfort zone he had on the world going into the race. That meant that when the Baltimore Bullet fired off a 1:52.03 world record, falling shy of a potential to challenge the 1:51 barrier still left him celebrating gold. Then came the 0.01sec "fingertip-of-fate" swim against Cavic. Phelps was asked about the "conspiracy" between him and Omega over that one. Phelps just shrugged and said: "I just looked up at the scoreboard and saw the number 1 next to my name. That's all I know." Next question please!
If there was one swim that stood out as the most stunning, the most dominant, it would have to be the 200m freestyle, in which Phelps clocked a world record of 1:42.96. The 400m medley came close to that - 4:03.84. Some might say that rates even higher than the 200m free. In truth, hard to compare. More certain is the name of the unluckiest man in town: Laszlo Cseh (HUN), three silvers, three fabulous European records, three reasons to wish he had not lived in a time of Phelps.
In all, Phelps swam 17 times over nine days, carefully measuring his effort and always coming through when it mattered. He took ice baths, two massages a day, he ate well, slept when he could and stayed focussed. The unfolding of the eight swims was like watching a classical composition. I likened it to epic compositions such as Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez. Bowman has been listening to that haunting sound "all year", he said.
For Phelps, master of the race pool after Bowman played puppet-master in the training pool, said: "It has been from getting my hand on the wall and winning by one one-hundredth to doing my best times in every event. It has been nothing but an upward rollercoaster, and it has also been nothing but fun."
In Athens four years ago, Phelps won six gold medals (100m and 200m butterfly, 200 and 400m individual medley, 4x200m freestyle relay and 4x100m medley relay), and two bronze (200m free and 4x100m free relay). At the age of 23, Superfish has set a record for the total number of medals won by a male Olympian with 16. Russian gymnast Nikolai Andrianov won 15, including seven gold. London 2012 holds another target: Latynina won 18 career medals.
"Michael Phelps - you can't put it in words what he has done here, his level of achievement is phenomenal and I don't think it will ever be seen again," said Australian distance great Grant Hackett, who fell 0.047sec a length shy of becoming the first man in history to win the same crown, the 1,500m freestyle, at three successive Games, the title going to Oussama Mellouli, the US-based Tunisian "I said before he could win six or seven medals, but he would need a bit of luck to get the eight ... it all lined up for him," said Hackett.
Leisel Jones (AUS), 100m breaststroke champion, described watching Phelps all week as "the highlight of my Games", ranking more highly than her own journey to the top of the Olympic podium - at least in an out-of-body sort of sense.
Phelps and Bowman are now off for a well-deserved rest. But then he will be "back to making deposits" in the bank of supreme fitness and charting a course to London 2012 on mission to raise the profile of swimming in the States.
"There are some things I still want to do to raise the bar a bit more in the world of swimming," Phelps said. "For me, it's still work in progress." That work may see him turn to events beyond his Athens and Beijing programme. He has already cut a deal with Bowman on the 400m medley, with that stunning 4:03. And he has expressed an interest in sprinting. "I would say I would like to go down and start sprinting, but Bob isn't so keen on that," said Phelps, smiling. Bowman said: "I think he thinks that'll be less work somehow. We'll see how keen he is on going to the sprints. There is more and different training. He's more naturally suited to longer events."
In Beijing, 47.51 and 50.58 in the 10m events, freestyle and butterfly respectively, suggest that Phelps could be lethal at sprinting. But backstroke offers great prospects and he hinted that he would loike to have another go at cracking the 200m butterfly standard - this time without water in his goggles.
Phelps said he and Bowman would experiment, as they did at Montreal 2005, although those world championships were his least successful world meet. "I think over the next four years, I would like to try new events and see what happens. Bob has said he wants to start fresh and do things he hasn't done before, new training methods and stuff like that. It's gonna be a lot of fun."
Phelps will pick-up his things at Ann Arbor and head back home to Baltimore in the autumn, following Bowman back to their roots after a spree at the University of Michigan.
"We are going to look at some different events, mix up the training programme a little bit and do some experimenting," Bowman said. "We have plenty of time and we will look at reinventing ourselves. We have accomplished this set of goals and I would dare to venture to say we are not going to do it again, at least not like this. We will start coming up with some goals that excite him and start working towards them."
First Phelps will sit still: "It's something I haven't done for a long time," he said. "I am looking forward to seeing friends, hanging out and sitting down. Not moving. Bob has a saying about putting money in the bank and this week was about making withdrawals. I guess I've gotten through every penny. Now it's time to start making deposits again."
When he does so, he will have a particular drive in mind: "I don't want this sport to be an every four year sport," he said. "We get lots of attention every four years, but for the rest of that time there is really not a lot of attention. We swim every single day, there is never really an off-season. I just want more people to get involved in the sport and I think it will happen in the next four years."
First stop: Rome 2009. The pressure is on. "My mom has told me I have to make the (US) team so she can go to Rome," said Phelps. You can be certain that he'll deliver the ticket.